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Mediator presents findings to Pine River Area Sanitary District Board

Improvements in communication and clear roles recommended

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Echo Journal file photo (April 2019).

PINE RIVER — After months of conflict during board meetings between staff, board members, contractors and member cities, the Pine River Area Sanitary District Board on Monday, March 14, heard the findings of a League of Minnesota Cities mediator.

Mediator and LMC Collaboration Services Manager Aimee Gourlay presented the board with her findings after interviewing board members, reviewing meeting minutes and listening to meeting recordings.

While some board members were hoping that Gourlay's findings might identify fault in past grievances, she clarified that was not her place.

"This is not a process where I took evidence to make decisions in interest of finding what's right or wrong or who did right and wrong," Gourlay said. "In fact, in my experience for resolving conflict, that generally is not helpful."

Gourlay found that PRASD understands and is committed to its goals, though many of her other findings were less positive.

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Gourlay said the roles among board members and staff members are not well defined and sometimes overlap. In addition, there may be gaps in coverage for certain responsibilities.

"It's unclear sometimes who does what and how they get the information, and how the managers cooperate and work together," Gourlay said. "The risk is that some essential functions basically don't get done or are done in a way without full consensus."

She also determined that the board and leadership team do not effectively make decisions, allocate resources, communicate and solve problems. She mentioned that there seems to be a tone of disrespect between parties arguing during meetings. She suggested many of these issues could be resolved with board policies and practices as well as more detailed meeting minutes.

Finally, while some relationships in PRASD are positive, there are others that are strained to the point where members may not trust one another. These trust issues, however, might be a result of failure in other areas.

"If you look at personal relationships by talking to people it became clear that while there are personal relationship issues, they are driven by other things," Gourlay said.

Gourlay did not specifically tell the board how to resolve or approach these problems. In some cases she did mention possible options. Suggestions included:

  • Clarify business and operation managers' roles.
  • Adopt clear policies or practices for board communication with staff.
  • Consider inviting the board's attorney to attend some meetings.
  • Follow open meeting laws.
  • Consider writing a code of conduct.
  • Write motions in meeting notes.
  • Consider team building activities.
  • Be clear that the board expects respectful and cooperative workplace relationships from staff and hold staff accountable.

The board had questions for Gourlay, among them a question regarding management, as that has been the focus of many discussions recently. Some recent conflicts, including those costing the board a contract with Pequot Lakes, stemmed from a divisive discussion over subcontracting with a company to manage the staff.
Gourlay made it clear that while reviewing and possibly changing the management structure might be an option to resolve some issues, she was not specifically making that recommendation.

"There's not a right answer," Gourlay said. "There's talking together, talking with your staff and finding what seems like will functionally work best. I do think a change needs to be made along with clarifying roles and making sure they have the tools they need to do their jobs."

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Gourlay suggested a similar approach for the other problems. She explained that it isn't her position to tell them what to do, but the board and staff need to discuss and decide those issues together.

Gourlay suggested that the board members discuss the findings together at their next meeting and then use that discussion to reach consensus on agreeable solutions to the findings. Board chair Mike Hansen said he would like to invite Gourlay to attend a meeting in the near future.

Any decisions made based on the findings will need to come after the board has a chance to review the results of the mediation.

Travis Grimler is a staff writer for the Pineandlakes Echo Journal weekly newspaper in Pequot Lakes/Pine River. He may be reached at 218-855-5853 or travis.grimler@pineandlakes.com.

Travis Grimler began work at the Echo Journal Jan. 2 of 2013 while the publication was still split in two as the Pine River Journal and Lake Country Echo. He is a full time reporter/photographer/videographer for the paper and operates primarily out of the northern stretch of the coverage area (Hackensack to Jenkins).
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